Isn’t vegetarianism enough? Isn’t veganism just a radical fringe diet?
Almost everybody knows a couple of vegetarians – people who don’t eat meat but usually still eat eggs and cheese, drink milk and don’t worry too much about things like ‘E Numbers’ or leather shoes. Because vegetarianism has been around for thousands of years, forms the dietary basis of several ancient cultures and belief systems and has at least tens of millions of practitioners around the globe, it is widely accepted and catered for in modern society. Few people would be confused, or even ask you questions, if you said you were vegetarian and most supermarkets, even in countries like South Africa, have hundreds of branded vegetarian products available.
When you consider that most vegetarians, when asked, will explain that they’ve stopped eating meat for the same ethical and health reasons as vegans, it’s easy to see how people can be confused into thinking that vegetarianism is ‘far enough’. However, there is no substantial difference between vegetarians and meat-eaters. Before any vegetarians reading this start complaining about ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘extremism’, let’s unpack our contentious little statement.
While vegetarians might not eat meat, they still consume either dairy products (lacto-vegetarians), eggs (ovo-vegetarians) or both (lacto-ovo-vegetarians). If this sounds okay to you, consider that the life of a dairy cow is still, no matter how you look at it, a horrific life and that to keep dairy cows pregnant (and thus giving milk) you have to produce young male calves, all of whom are turned into veal at the ‘tender’ age of roughly 6 months. Eggs come from hens and, for every female chick born into a life of egg-laying, the law of averages dictates that a male chick will also be born. These male chicks are killed almost instantly, as they serve no purpose in egg-laying factories.
You’re welcome to explore the abhorrent cruelty of dairy and egg-farming more online, but I’m sure you can already begin to understand why vegetarianism is no good: vegetarians are still directly responsible for the deaths of cows and chickens! In fact, especially when you consider that vegetarians aren’t usually all that fussed about leather or wool, all vegetarianism amounts to is a choice to exploit animals in different ways.
While vegetarians doubtless cause a few less deaths than meat-eaters, ‘ethical vegetarians’ could hardly justify such frivolous, inessential consumption of eggs and dairy when confronted with the facts. So, while many people, even some vegetarians, inaccurately label vegans as ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’, veganism is in fact a courageous and dedicated lifestyle choice that is not hypocritical about how it manifests its own ethics; it is the only lifestyle consistent with a desire to live without inflicting unnecessary cruelty on other species.
“What we choose to eat makes a powerful statement about our ethics and our view of the world — about our very humanity. Whenever we choose not to buy meat, eggs, and dairy products, we withdraw our support from cruelty to animals, undertake an economic boycott of factory farms, and support the production of cruelty-free foods. Regardless of any other beliefs we hold and however else we choose to lead our lives, each of us can decide to act with kindness and compassion. Making humane choices is the ultimate affirmation of our humanity.” – Vegan Outreach
But isn’t milk an essential source of calcium? Aren’t eggs the best source of protein?
Neither of these statements is true – we have a closer look at these and other common misconceptions in our section on Vegan Nutrition.
So why do so many vegetarians refuse to give up their eggs and dairy?
The reasons for staying vegetarian are almost identical to the reasons meat-eaters refuse to give up their T-bone steaks, fish fillets and chicken drumsticks: taste, peer pressure, poor knowledge of nutrition and plain old habit.
Vegetarians make up all sorts of excuses to keep on eating their admittedly tasty cheese, drinking their cow milk and eating their scrambled eggs. However, given the many types of soy milk available nowadays, the burgeoning vegan cheese market and the ability to create all sorts of delicious and healthy egg-like dishes from plant substitutes (tofu-scramble anybody?), the taste argument is a bit tenuous. Also, shouldn’t suffering outweigh taste? Would a vegetarian let a meat-eater get away with the taste argument? Would a meat-eater let a cannibal get away with this argument?
Anybody who has ever turned down the Sunday roast in favour of roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes is all too aware of the discomfort involved. In fact some people will even state that their sole reason for not being vegan is that their family or friends wouldn’t understand, or that they would feel judged by work colleagues. Even worse, some defensive meat-eaters will actually feel judged when somebody elects not to join them in their meal of burned animal carcass. In the same way, vegetarians might feel like people view them as fanatics (as indeed some poor, misguided people do) if they don’t have milk in their tea or if they check the ingredients on chocolate bar wrappers. However, nobody judges people with allergies when they grill the waiter to ensure that their meal has no egg in it, and nobody calls somebody with lactose or gluten intolerance a nut. In fact they might even profess admiration for their their keen understanding of health and nutrition.
As long as they’re not doing anything that causes undue harm, all people should be free to pursue their chosen lifestyles and, if you feel like you can’t handle the pressure involved in becoming a proud member of the vegan society, you might find that gritting your teeth and doing it anyway might even help you become more assertive and self-fulfilled in other areas of your life too!
Poor knowledge of nutrition
Sadly, just like the average meat-eater, the average vegetarian living in a developed country has a very poor understanding of diet. This is especially true in South Africa, where the average person either eats way too much meat or lives on an unhealthy staple diet of processed maize. Much of this has to do with the fact that we live in a consumer society where we’re encouraged, or even manipulated, into buying things we don’t need and that aren’t necessarily very good for us. Food is no exception in this regard – TV dinners, fast food or ‘hunk of meat and some over boiled veg’ are more familiar to most of us than carefully balanced meals of complex carbs, proteins, vitamins and minerals, simply because this is what we’re sold in shops. We regard milk as a health-giving wonderfood simply because of a misleading PR campaign by the dairy industry in the 1950’s. We assume that ‘protein’ always means ‘meat’ and think that as long as we can stomach a forkful or two of nasty green vegetables once a day, we’re getting a balanced intake of ‘the healthy stuff’.
However, as prominent organisations like the World Health Organisation keep telling us, based on countless studies on nutrition and disease, a vegan diet is probably the healthiest diet around. Meat is linked to cancer and heart disease and we get way too much protein when we eat it; milk is linked to osteoporosis as much of the calcium we think we obtain from it is actually leached out of our system by the dodgy proteins that are also floating around in a glass of the ‘good stuff’, while at the same time we’re ingesting loads of unhealthy fats as well as growth hormone and antibiotics….then there’s the pus and blood and the fact that many people are actually allergic to milk, but let’s not get into that now!
On the up-side, if you go vegan you almost HAVE to learn a little bit about where to get your protein and calcium and complex carbs and vitamins and minerals and all the other genuine good stuff. This is a fantastic bonus – not only are you saving animals, you’re also learning how to live a healthier life! In fact, we’re probably not exaggerating when we say that some vegans should probably have honorary degrees in nutritional science!
And yes, in case you’re wondering, most vegans do take some essential supplements (like vitamin B12, for instance), but then so should everybody, according to the experts!
I hope it’s now clear why, if you’re changing your diet for ethical reasons, vegetarianism just doesn’t cut it. It also weakens your position when you’re arguing against perpetrators of cruelty and leaves you open to charges of hypocrisy. Once more: veganism is the only ethical dietary choice or, as Donald Watson, the founder of the modern vegan movement said, ‘veganism is the beginning and end of vegetarianism.’
Just remember though, that whether you’re promoting veganism to a vegetarian, a meat-eater or a cannibal, do it in a kind, understanding way. You were probably also a defensive meat, egg or dairy consumer once!